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Post Operation Excerpt: “The Pine Spider”

Author since 2024 1Story 0 Followers
Post Operation Excerpt: “The Pine Spider”

It took me longer than it should have to realize one simple truth: humanity has a blind spot, and hiding in it are living nightmares.

It was 3 in the morning. It was quiet there, except for the cold wind. No moon lit the sky, granting the mountains a blanket of darkness that would have been wholly pure if not for my van’s headlights and the dim stars above. I shivered, then retrieved my black coat and shrugged it on along with a black woolen hat. The seal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was vaguely visible on the driver door.

I opened the back of the van and began to prepare the equipment organized there, first by slipping on the black utility harness over my coat and fitting a strapped headlamp over the woolen hat. After that, I opened a long, hard sided case to reveal the M110 I had been issued. Its silhouette was marred by a bulky nightvision scope and an attached bipod. I took three magazines, inserted one into the rifle, then slung it over my shoulder. I shivered again, but not from the cold. The Service had chosen to issue me a military sniper rifle and accessories that easily must have cost them somewhere near 10,000 dollars. They knew something, and had chosen to withhold it from me.

I checked my side holster, felt the familiar grip of my revolver. Outside of the range, the thing had never been fired. I planned to keep it that way, especially tonight.

I adjusted my harness and the rifle’s sling, then shouldered on the black backpack containing a lot of first aid and some necessary survival supplies, plus a pair of night vision binoculars.

After that came radio setup. Attached to my backpack was a small manpack UHF radio. I extended its antenna, connected my headset, and clicked it on. I watched the display and heard the audio feedback as the crypto cycled. I double checked the frequency I had notated on my phone, then programmed it into the manpack. Pressing a PTT button on the headset, I said, “PA Field 4, this is SAB, comms check, over.”

A few seconds passed.

“SAB, PA Field 4. Lima-Charlie. How me, over.” I sighed, hearing the operator. At least the junky SATCOM was working.

“PA Field 4, SAB. Lima-Charlie,” I replied “I’m about to head out. Can you see me? Over.”

A few more seconds.

“SAB, PA Field 4. We’ve got you. You’re good to head out. We’re scanning the area and we’ll let you know if we see anything interesting. Over.”

“PA Field 4, SAB. Roger. I’ll be standing by on this channel. Over.”

I didn’t wait for another response. I grabbed the straps of my harness, shrugged it around till it was comfortable, then did the same with the backpack. I turned on my headlamp, cycled through it until it was a dim red that just barely made the ground navigable. Finally, I powered on the rifle’s scope, and released the bolt to chamber a round.

Time to go.

I had taken the van to a tourist spot (closed and empty at this time of night and this day of the week) called Hurricane Ridge. The plan from here was to descend directly south to head deeper into the Olympic National Park, but generally keep a higher altitude as I – and the Service’s invisible UAV – kept eyes on the pines that grew thick down at the valleys’ troughs.

I reminded myself that this was a reconnaissance operation – there was zero obligation or orders that required me to pursue or otherwise go beyond normal levels of risk. That business would come later. But not tonight. Not without a real team.

It was steep, so I mostly tried to switchback as I descended through the darkness. Out here, it was mostly slow-going, and I was practically blind. My only plan was to keep away from the woods, stay on higher ground, and rely on the operations department to keep a watchful eye through the UAV.

“PA Field 4, SAB,” I said, hopping from one mossy boulder to another.

“SAB, PA Field 4.”

“Nothing yet?” I knew I was breaking comms good-practice without the callouts but it was very doubtful that anyone else would be on this channel, this frequency, and especially set up with the right crypto.

“No.” The operator clearly didn’t care too much either. “Nothing on the visible spectrum. We’ve got some deer on the infrared, maybe half a mile from you, but that’s it.”

“Alright. I can’t really see shit out here, so I’m counting on you guys.”

“We’ve got it covered.”

A thought kept nagging at me as I moved through the rough, steep terrain. These were shit orders, and the Service seemed to bother less and less at convincing me otherwise. I was stuck out here in the middle of the night, a lone agent essentially, totally blind and tasked with staying unnoticed, keeping a detailed report, and not using lethal force unless absolutely necessary.

There was really only one reason they had sent me out here. I was a guinea pig. Or worse… bait.

My radio’s crypto break sparked into my ears. “SAB, PA Field 4.”

“PA Field 4, SAB,” I answered back.

“We’re going to need you to check in every ten minutes.”

“That wasn’t in the preop. Has anything changed?”

“No. It was passed down from OPS.”

“OPS herself? Not duty OPS?”

“OPS herself.”

“Uh, roger that.” I could feel my nerves standing on end. The folks at Washington D.C. were involved. Christ… why was I out here alone?

Returning to the field offices after an operation always started with the same routine: a complete quarantine from human contact for no less than two days. During the quarantine I would be subject to complete physiological, radiological, and psychological testing typically conducted by a team who barred themselves from me via HAZMAT PPE. They’d shoot me up with countless preventative antibiotic cocktails and put me on a new vaccination schedule to take place over the next month.

I thought I understood fully why the precautions were taken. But now, out here, walking along a deer trail on the steep edge of a mountainside, I realized that the precautions weren’t just for safety – it was good old fashioned data collection. And out here, well, I was a net. A net meant to absorb any and all effects of our specimens. And that might be the only reason I was sent here.

But I kept walking. Deeper and deeper into the dark.

The radio’s crypto break ripped me out of contemplation.

“SAB, PA Field 4. Check in, please.”

“Yeah. I’m here.”

“We need to know how you’re feeling.”

“Uh… Fine.”

“Stress? Anxiety?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Nothing abnormal, considering the circumstances. One out of five, I guess.”

The operator didn’t answer. Minutes past. I felt rain begin to patter on my jacket. Droplets appeared and disappeared through the red beam of my headlamp as I kept moving.

“Southwest, southwest, southwest,” the operator said. His tone was urgent and immediately I felt my muscles shock into action. I dropped to one knee and readied the rifle on my shoulder. With my free arm, I brought my wrist-strapped compass beneath my headlamp’s red light.

“Bearing… uh… 2-3-2. 2-3-2, from your position. Moving west,” said the operator. “Confirm visual.”

I repositioned myself to face the bearing. I was facing almost perpendicular to the hillside. I flipped off the red headlamp and began scanning through the night vision scope.

I heard it before I saw it. Tree limbs bending and crashing. Something tearing through the growth at the bottom of the valley. Something huge.

Following the sound… there it was. It was the largest Peripheral creature I had ever seen. It would have been almost… monolithic, if it had not been moving at such a speed through the valley’s canopy. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t touching the ground. Simply… moving through the trees. Propelled by long, arachnid-like legs. Making out a silhouette was impossible in the darkness… but Christ, it was larger than a school bus. And its legs seemed countless, each one as long as the Douglas fir tree trunks it swam through.

“Do you have a visual?” the operator demanded.

I fumbled with the PTT button. “Uh – yes, yes, shit, I fuckin’ see it. Peripheral spotted, bearing 2-4-1 now, it’s moving west and away from me. Moving… I don’t know, twenty miles per hour. Hold on, I’m deploying the Skunk.” I dropped the rifle and flipped my headlamp back on. I shrugged off my backpack and retrieved the 40mm launcher. Setting it on the rock beside me, I dug into the backpack again and found a can-sized metal cylinder. I broke open the launcher, loaded the cylinder, closed the launcher, and aimed for the bottom of the hillside below me.

Part of me wanted the thing to run off, to escape. The rest of me wanted a chance to study it. To prove I wasn’t just some useless guinea pig. Still… I could have aimed the damn thing a bit farther.

I pulled the trigger and still wasn’t quite prepared for the loud pop as the projectile vanished into the darkness. On impact, I could almost immediately smell the lab-concocted plethora of decay and rot, despite the device having landed around 400 feet away at the trough of the valley. I inserted nose plugs and slipped on a basic filtered mask before it got unbearable. As the device pumped out its hellish gas, I shouldered the rifle again and began scanning for the Peripheral.

I pressed the PTT button, and had to speak louder over the mask. “PA Field 4, did you see where it went?”

“Negative. As soon as you shot the Skunk, we saw it disappear beneath the tree tops.”

“Infrared?”

“Nothing.”

That really wasn’t good. In my experience, camouflage from infrared wasn’t usually a trait of prey animals. Though, it wasn’t like Peripherals usually were prey animals, anyway.

At first it was hardly noticeable over my breathing, but a ringing in my ears slowly became more intense.

“Ears are ringing,” I said over the radio.

“Psychological?”

“I think so. It’s getting worse.”

“Any other symptoms?”

“No.”

“Check your counter.”

“Geiger counter is quiet.” Good God, the ringing.

“Test strips?”

Fuck. I’d have to put the rifle down… but the only use I was going to get out of the damn thing was the scope. No way some measly 7.62 rounds were going to be any help against that fucking Peripheral. And to think I actually went into this operation believing the Service was overprepared.

I set the rifle down and dug out my chemical agent kit from my harness. Nerve agents…negative. Blood agents… negative. Blister agents… negative. I was testing for chlorine when the ringing became unbearable. “Fuck…” I moaned.

“SAB, PA Field 4.”

My vision was blurring. I dropped the testing kit. Were my ears bleeding? I couldn’t tell. I pressed the PTT button. “The ringing… I can’t…” I couldn’t continue. I ripped off the radio’s headset and pressed my hands into my ears. The ringing had evolved into… screeching. Horrid, unending, merciless screeching like an animal was being tortured within my own skull.

I vaguely heard the radio operator yelling from where I dropped the headset. “SAB!” The rest was inaudible, drowned out by the God forsaken squealing in my head.

Before long, I was on the ground, lying in a fetal position. Some instinctive muscle must have kicked in because I was holding my revolver, finger on the trigger.

It felt like the sound was threatening to physically cave my head in. At some back alley part of my mind I knew that the ringing wasn’t real. If it was, I should have gone deaf by now. My ear drums should have already ruptured.

My hand holding the revolver was twitching, my arm out of control.

And then, a blinding light. It floated over the forest, baking every surface with unnatural white light. I saw it, saw the smoke that gently wavered around it. A flare. It was a flare dropped by the UAV, lighting up the entire mountainside, turning my surroundings into an eerie white, contrasting against the black sky above.

And there was the Peripheral. Even coated under that white light, I could make out very little detail as it sat motionless at the tree line just below me. Couldn’t have been more than fifty meters away. The legs… they weren’t the length of tree trunks. In actuality, they stretched into the trees like endless, black veins, intertwined with the pines.

Did the Peripheral have a face? I couldn’t tell. But something about its posture… something made me know that it was looking at me. Had been looking at me, for God knows how long.

Then, it was gone.

After the quarantine, I got a full debrief.

OPS was on the call from D.C., silent through the whole thing. The zoology department had coded it Peripheral Delta Omega One, dubbed it the ‘Pine Spider’, and were confident in claiming that it was a brand new type of Peripheral. A new North American cryptid. As if we didn’t have enough. Our Canadian counterparts were notified, due to its proximity to the border, but the Service believed it was localized to the Olympic National Park.

A lot more information would have to be gathered, but ZOO believed it was typical hunting behavior, and was not showing signs of sentience.

On the screen where ZOO was showing his department’s observations, he flipped to a still image. It was of me, curled up on the hillside. As I looked at it, comprehended it, I inhaled a shaky breath.

“Sol,” he said, “you reported noise that became more and more intense as, assumedly, Delta Omega One got closer to your position. You also reported that you drew your pistol during the psychological attack.”

I nodded, unable to speak as I stared at the black-white image on the screen.

“As you can see, it’s being assumed based on this image that the ringing you heard was only the first stage in a two-stage attack. Per your post-op medical screening, you have not, nor ever had suicidal ideations, correct?”

I nodded again.

No one said anything else. The image of me, curled up on that grassy, rocky mountainside, pressing the revolver to the side of my own head spoke for itself.

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